Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Comics Reviews (November 26th, 2014)

From worst to best, but I paid for everything.

The Massive #29

One of those comics that leaves you going "really? That's it?" Which is impressive for a comic featuring the apocalypse, and yet Brian Wood nevertheless makes it feel a bit underwhelming. I aspire, in the future, not to waste two and a half years of my life and $105 on comics this not good.

ODY-C #1

Not my thing, but if it is your thing, very good. Some lovely psychedelia and epic sci-fi, it's all terribly pretty, and the opening octuple splash with two fold-out timelines and maps manage to out-Multiversity Multiversity and out-Hickman Hickman in one shot. Really, this is a fabulous comic that's just not my cup of tea. If psychedelic sci-fi epics sound like yours, do check it out.

New Avengers #27

One of those Hickman comics that relies on the idea that the reader has remembered the mythology he's been building up. I don't, so, you know, oh well. The knowledge that the answer to all of these questions are in some fashion "Secret Wars" is a bit of a non-starter. But mostly... eh.

Stumptown #3

One that's going to have to be reread when it's finished for me, as I've definitely lost all sense of who most of the characters are. It looks very good, and has Rucka's usual sense of characterization, at least in the bits that are self-contained enough to be understandable entirely from this issue, but this is definitely the comic I want to vote "most in need of a recap page and character guide" this week.

The Unwritten Apocalypse #11

I believe that this is the penultimate issue of this. In any case, it's a lovely issue, building to a great cliffhanger and going through some nice paces to get there. Really, really looking forward to the "it's all done" reread of this series.

Trees #7

Another series kicking into high gear, with a sense of things happening, if not of things converging. A bit puzzled by the decision to not bother with location captions, but if Ellis wants that level of attentiveness, he's a writer who's entitled to it, frankly. In any case, things happen. Is interesting.

Lazarus #13

Not only are things heating up, I feel like I understand them without having to reread a ton of past issues. There's no recap page, but pertinent information is given through dialogue reminders, and there's solid character work - I love the poker game amongst the Lazari, in particular. Not a jumping on point, but a solid reminder of why this is one of my favorite series going.

LaBostrie Feels His Skin Crawl (The Last War in Albion Part 72: Tygers, The Return of the Good Gumbo)

This is the twenty-second of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the sixth volume. This volume is available in the US here and the UK here, as well as being obtainable at your local bookstore or comic shop. Finding the other volumes are left as an exercise for the reader.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionAlan Moore's last Swamp Thing arc involved a series of sci-fi stories, including one featuring the Green Lantern Corps, a DC property Moore had played with in a trio of short stories as well.

"In the darkest part of the swamp, he pauses. A monstrous black bird flaps overhead, momentarily eclipsing the sun. LaBostrie feels his skin crall and moves on. Below, in the green tank of swamp water, something stirs. And rises." - Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, Swamp Thing

Figure 542: The concepts Alan Moore and
Kevin O'Neill created for "Tygers" would
eventually become a central part of the DC
Universe in the form of the Red Lantern Corps.
But it is in most regards the second of his three Green Lantern stories that is most interesting. One of two collaborations he did with Kevin O’Neill while at DC, the story, entitled “Tygers,” tells of the death of Abin Sur, the predecessor to Hal Jordan as the Green Lantern for Earth’s sector of space. The story is notable for several reasons. For one, it is the story that Moore was referring to in later interviews where he accused DC of “going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of night.” The story responsible for provoking that comment was a 2009 Green Lantern-based crossover written by Geoff Johns, which actually owes relatively little to “Tygers” save for featuring further characters from the alien planet on which it is set, although it is true that an extended prophecy given within “Tygers” has been extensively mined by both Johns and other writers for story concepts. 

Figure 543: The horrific Qull of the
Five Inversions. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Kevin O'Neill, from
"Tygers," in Tales of the Green Lantern
Corps
 Annual #2, 1986)
For another, as its title suggests, the story owes a considerable debt to William Blake. The bulk of this debt is subtle - no actual Blakean concepts or images appear within the story, and although Kevin O’Neill draws a number of memorably grotesque and bizarre horrors in the story, his style in “Tygers” is far from a straightforward imitation of Blake, nor even an homage. O’Neill’s art is nevertheless striking, and in many ways he comes closer to Blake by doing his own strange and visionary style instead of an imitation. The shambling creature Qull of the Five Inversions, whose prophecies ultimately lure Abin Sur to his demise, is an astonishingly gruesome and monstrous figure who, though he has no obvious counterpart in Blake’s art or mythology, bristles with an unsettling power that few other artists can match. 

Figure 544: Donald Ault's name is
invoked. (Written by Alan Moore,
lettering by John Costanza, from
"Tygers," in Tales of the Green
Lantern Corps
 Annual #2, 1986)
In a happily generative coincidence, the name of planet upon which Abin Sur is so fatally tempted, Ysmault, is, upon its first mention, split across two lines by letterer John Costanza, causing it to become hyphenated as “Ysm-Ault,” a spacing which reveals the hidden word “Ault,” which is the surname of Donald Ault, a prominent American scholar specializing both in William Blake and in the comics of Scrooge McDuck creator Carl Barks. Ault’s most famous work at the time was his 1974 text Visionary Physics, which argues that Newton is not just a convenient bogeyman that Blake famously rails against when he rejects “single vision & Newtons sleep,” and that it is more proper to consider Blake’s work as an elaborate response to Newton, whose system Blake views as “providing a usurpation of and substitution for the very vision he himself is trying to communicate.” 

Figure 545: Newton was a frequently invoked nemesis
in the work of William Blake. (Newton, 1804-05)
Ault traces the evolution of Blake’s engagement with Newton, from its earliest form in The Book of Urizen, in which the demonic figure of reason, Urizen, is described via what Ault describes as “several obviously Newtonian concepts: the ‘void,’ “all-repelling,’ ‘this abominable void,’ ‘this soul-shudd’dring vacuum,’ ‘measurement,’ ‘dark revolving,’ ‘globes of attraction,’” as well as “several more obscure allusions, such as ‘the rolling of wheels / As of swelling seas,’ referring to Newton’s reduction of the motions of the tides to the motions of revolving planets,” to a later model in which Newton and Urizen are equated with Satan, who “has tricked fallen man” into subscribing to their system, which Blake recognizes as having a sinister but potent appeal to the Imagination. Blake’s response rejects the very idea of systems, instead dividing experience into “symbolic ‘States’ which preserve the integrity of the individual identity yet which ‘abolish’ systems.” These states bear more than a passing resemblance to the momentary assemblages described by Deleuze and Guattari - states of being that are, in Blake, defined by the passage among the various realms of his cosmology (Beulah, Golgonooza, Ulro, the Vegetable Earth, et cetera), all existing within the larger sense of Eternity, in which all these contrary states exist simultaneously and, perhaps, rhizomatically.

This evolution of Blake’s response is also visible in his treatment of the possibility of a decisive overthrowing of Urizen, from Los’s failed attempt to bind him in The Book of Urizen to Blake’s ultimate rejection of Orc and the charismatic revolution he augurs in America a Prophecy. Both, ultimately, merely offer new systems that purport to replace the Newtonian one, but that ultimately only reiterate the flawed fixity of Newtons sleep. Instead Blake embrace an altogether more variable and strange system. A similar move takes place in Moore’s final two issues of Swamp Thing, in which he returns to the questions of eschatology and revolution that he explored in the issues between Swamp Thing’s second and third deaths. 

Figure 546: Swamp Thing returns to
Abby. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, from
Swamp Thing #63, 1987)
These final two issues return to the dualistic structure that has recurred in Moore’s Swamp Thing since “Windfall.” The first, titled, in Moore’s typical elliptical fashion, “Loose Ends (Reprise),” alternates between a tour of several of the secondary characters from throughout Moore’s run, checking in on Matt Cable and Wallace Monroe, as well as looking at Abby, Chester, and Liz, and on Swamp Thing’s vengeful return as he hunts down and takes grotesque vengeance on those responsible for his most recent death. The issue ends with Swamp Thing finally returning to Abby, leading into Moore’s final issue, “Return of the Good Gumbo.” 

Where “Loose Ends (Reprise)” focuses on Swamp Thing as an essentially wrathful figure, with the character almost entirely absent from the issue, appearing only in his chakra-based spirit form in a two-page spread early on in the issue prior to his final page reunion with Abby, “Return of the Good Gumbo” offers an entirely more merciful figure. The issue is framed by a description of Gene LaBostrie, a man in  Louisiana village who punts across the swamp, musing on how “it is as if the spirit has departed from this land. The children cry and give no explanation. Prematurely aged by spanish moss the trees stand sulking, waiting for a word of reconciliation no one can pronounce. Each day’s sun seems less willing to begin its labored, struggling ascent towards the shadeless pinacles of noon, less eager to drive back the ebb-tide night across the swamps and turn their mirror-ribboned streams to chrome.” This monologue’s call for some lost spirit is tacitly answered by the next page, a literal splash page of a bird landing in the water in front of Abby and Swamp Thing reclining beneath a tree and besides the story’s title. 

Figure 547: The reunion of Swamp Thing and Abby is
portrayed in a sort of bayou-pastoral style. (Written by
Alan Moore, from Swamp Thing #64, 1987)
Throughout the issue, Swamp Thing muses on the question left broadly unanswered by the Gotham City triptych. “Am I not a god,” he asks. “I could touch all the world with gorgeous wilderness as I touched Gotham. Could transform this planet to a sphere of colors, perfumes, and full bellies. Anything.” Abby, meanwhile, talks of her time working with Chester in an ecological activist group, but bemoans the slow progress. “There was talk about dumping waste here, but we kicked up, so they abandoned the idea. Uh, well, that is, they dumped it someplace else,” she admits. “Sometimes,” she muses, “I think for us to really help the environment, we’d need a different world.” The observation causes an awkward silence, broken when Swamp Thing grows a tuber for her to eat and they make love for the first time since his return. 

Figure 548: Moore gets one last round of
psychedelic vegetable sex in. (Written by
Alan Moore, from Swamp Thing #64, 1987)
This lovemaking is depicted in a return to the iconography of “Rite of Spring,” which flows into a sequence in which Swamp Thing sits awake next to her and continues musing over the question of whether to save the world by overthrowing it. He thinks over the death of Alec Holland that gave him birth, and thinks about the Parliment of Trees, “a dynasty spanning the eons, reaching back to times before mankind, whose only record now is etched on sheets of coal, far underground. A dynasty of gods.” Pages recount the epochs of life on Earth, as Swamp Thing wonders why his predecessors did not simply keep the precambrian eden clean of animals, or why in the silurian age they “never made this world a cool piscean paradise, nor when the fish with legs boiled up from the devonian mud did they impose reptilian utopia.” And each eon is shown to have its plant elemental, a vegetable creature befitting the fauna of the age, from fish to dinosaur, until at last there is a panel of Swamp Thing standing and watching the sun rise.

Figure 549: Swamp Thing decides against
divinity. (Written by Alan Moore, from
Swamp Thing #64, 1987)
“Is this,” he asks, “what it means to be a God? To know, and never do? To watch the world wind by, and in its windings find content? If I should feed the world, heal all the wounds man’s smoldering industries have made, what would he do? Would he renounce the wealth his sawmills bring, step gently on the flowers instead, and pluck each apple with respect for this abundant world in all its providence? No. He would pump more poisons, build more mines, safe in the knowledge that I stood on hand to mend the biosphere, endlessly covering the scars he could now endlessly inflict.” And so he yields, averting wrath and revolution. Instead he goes deep into the swamp and builds from trees and flowers a home for him and Abby to retire to. Declaring her his princess, he summons a lily pad to serve as a raft, and they sail out to their new home together, arms entwined. They say there farewells to Liz and Chester, who are ecstatic for their friends. Swamp Thing embraces Liz, seeing her for the first time in many issues, and gently reassures her as she continues her healing from the traumas inflicted upon her. And with that they walk out into the swamp, together, as Chester and Liz hold hands and face the future.

Figure 550: Alan More waves goodbye to Swamp Thing and the reader.
(From Swamp Thing #64, 1987)
From there the scene cuts to the sleazebag photographer whose images of Abby and Swamp Thing led to so much trouble, as he tries to get Gene LaBostrie to tell him where the Swamp Thing can be found. LeBostrie feigns to not speak English, “spreads his hands in mined apology, then shoves his craft out” to guide him home. “Do they think money’s everything,” LaBostrie muses. “The only yardstick that life’s quality is measured by? Yes, yes they do, and that is why they are so very poor.” And as he thinks this, he catches sight of Swamp Thing, a shadow in the grass, waving at him, and LaBostrie, drawn to look like Alan Moore himself, waves a final farewell to the character upon which he made his reputation in America, and upon five years of comics that would prove to change the world forever.

And that is it. No fiery retribution, for all Moore’s obvious rage. Whatever darkness sits within the heart of this new world, Moore opts to let it remain there, perhaps in the hope that it will, as Swamp Thing suggested, breed some greater virtue. There is no fury of Orc - no red flames melting the heavens nor plagues creeping upon burning winds. Whatever apocalypse Moore might have envisioned and considered, in Swamp Thing at least, he in the end declines to bring it down upon America, even symbolically. Instead there is what Moore describes as “a kind of ‘happy ever after’ ending” where “Swamp Thing and Abigail just go and grow themselves a fairy-tale household in the swamp and, as far as I’m concerned, they live happily ever after.” And so on the final page of Moore’s run Gene LaBostrie, and in turn Moore, returns home, “walks down his village street and lets the laughing children tease him, grabbing at his trailing coat. In every garden cabbages and onions grow so big and succulent a man might cry. The cooking smells and fiddle strains are tangled in the summer air, both equally as sweet. Good god is in his heaven. Good gumbo’s in the pot. LaBostrie moves his black-fringed lips in something very like a prayer: ‘Laissez les bontemps rouler.’ Please. For us. For all of us… Laissez les bontemps rouler.”

And with that, Moore brought his longest engagement with American comics to a polite and benedictive end: a prayer for peace. 

There is no sense in which this prayer was answered.

Moore’s final issue Swamp Thing came out in June of 1987, one month before the famously delayed Watchmen #12. One month later, Grant Morrison, who had spent the preceding two years steadily building a comics career by almost perfectly duplicating the steps of an early-career Alan Moore, took on his first ongoing assignment for 2000 AD, a conscious response to Moore’s work and an overt effort to rewrite the territory that Moore had just established; less than a year after that he would make his own leap to America as part of a brazen attempt on DC’s part to copy the success they'd enjoyed with Moore on Swamp Thing. Moore, on the other hand, would do two further projects with DC before acrimoniously parting ways with them: a Batman story with Brian Bolland, and the concluding third of V for Vendetta, a project rescued from the wreckage that was Warrior. This comic, a bracing adventure story about the violent overthrow of the government by an anarchist terrorist, is exactly the unsparing howl of rage against the systems of the world that Swamp Thing ultimately declines to be. [continued]

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea Final (Game of Thrones)

Well, something had to knock Doctor Who off its Hugo perch. And after competing in long form for its first season, Game of Thrones seems to have cemented itself as the Hugo frontrunner with back-to-back victories over Doctor Who in 2012 and 2013. 2012 was perhaps understandable: It wasn’t an extraordinary year for Doctor Who, and Game of Thrones did have “Blackwater,” which was a stunningly good Peter Dinklage vehicle of an episode. Even in 2013, you can possibly criticize the strategy of having Doctor Who go in with Day of the Doctor, Name of the Doctor, An Adventure in Time and Space, and The Five-ish Doctors as possibly weaker than the strategy of just chucking “The Rains of Castamere” up.

But “The Rains of Castamere” is also an episode worth looking at because it gets at the way in which much of the talk about what makes Game of Thrones good is desperately silly. Because essentially all “The Rains of Castamere” has to recommend it is that it has a lot of really shocking character deaths in it. This is, to be fair, part of the show’s brand. Its first big, iconic cultural moment was the killing of Ned Stark, Sean Bean’s character, late in the first season after having previously presented him as the show’s main character (which, to be fair, he was up until his decapitation). And this is, if we’re being honest, one of the great deaths in television history.

But the reason that it worked wasn’t that it was a shock death. Shock deaths are, frankly, overused on television. What worked so well about killing Ned Stark was that it, in one shot, altered the status quo for every other character in the show. It was a plot twist that actually changed things. Which you can’t really say about the famed Red Wedding of “The Rains of Castamere,” which butchers a significant chunk of the cast, but which mostly has the effect of either preventing things that would be been interesting from happening (destroying any possibility of Tyrion and Sansa coming to understand each other, keeping Arya wandering around) or terminating plotlines that weren’t really working that well anyway (Robb and Catelyn). It was, frankly, a cheap move, and for my money, one of the weaker episodes of the third season.

So if not its body count, what is so good about Game of Thrones? It’s tempting to say a word I’m usually quite down on: worldbuilding. But instead I’ll go with “structure.” Game of Thrones is the most lusciously structured show on television. Under the hood, it is almost ostentatious in its simplicity: it’s epic fantasy structured as a soap opera, using the same basic trick of Doctor Who whereby you sell the sense of the epic with one or two tremendously expensive effects shots per episode, thus covering the fact that every other scene is just two British actors sitting in a room talking.

But where the show really sparkles is in its use of editing and structure within an episode. The overall progression of the plot is demonstrably that of a soap opera - every episode has big moments for one or two plots and then several scenes that incrementally advance a selection of the remainder, with characters moving on and off stage as needed. This poses something of a difficulty in terms of structuring individual episodes, however. The scope of Game of Thrones quickly spirals to where there’s simply too much going on for episodes to have straightforward A and B plots. Occasionally a single storyline might dominate an episode, but other times episodes will draw their titles from single five or ten minute scenes. This means that an episode doesn’t get to have a plot, as such.

Instead each episode becomes an exercise in sketching the shape of the fictional world. An episode of Game of Thrones is a portrait of Westeros - a declaration of what the world looks like today. The show builds to this over the course of, in effect, its entire first season, beginning with the portrayal of one event in one castle and then splitting the characters up and sending them towards the various corners of the world so that, by advancing their individual plots, the show gradually shows more and more of that world.

The meat of an episode is thus largely about the transitions between scenes and the symbolic resonances they set up. Let’s take a specific example - “Walk of Punishment,” the episode that aired on April 14th, 2013, one day after Cold War, with which it shared the services of Tobias Menzies as Edmure Tully/Lieutenant Stepashin. The episode has fourteen scenes, and almost all of them have clear thematic transitions between them, with several conspiring to make larger points about the plot.

The episode opens with a Robb Stark scene that ends with Robb talking about how well Tywin Lannister is doing in the War. That prompts a cut to a Tywin scene, in which Jaime is discussed. Sure enough, Jaime is the focus of the third scene. But after this things get more symbolic. That scene features Jaime warning Brienne that when they get to camp she’s going to be raped, and advising her to let them rape her because otherwise they’ll kill her, and admitting that if he were in her position, he’d force them to do just that, which is why he’s glad he’s not a woman. The fourth scene then jumps to Arya as a not-quite-a-prisoner of the Brotherhood Without Banners. In other words, we move between two scenes of captured female warriors - an equation that gets paid off nearly two full seasons later when Arya and Brienne’s stories actually coincide.

The next few transitions are among female characters: the fifth scene features Catelyn Stark, Arya’s mother, followed by one featuring Talisa, Robb’s wife. This is followed in turn by Jon Snow, Robb’s supposed half-brother. Which makes for a series of scenes that move around Robb, leaving him as a sort of visible absence. Again, this thematic storytelling serves a larger role: Robb is ultimately not really a presence in his own right, but a marker for the absence of his father. Ultimately the story doesn’t cohere around him, and instead he’s slowly making his way to the Red Wedding. By moving around his absence, the show is quietly revealing the real shape of its world.

The Jon Snow scene does another transition along the axis of “mention a character, cut to the character,” going to Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch (at least until he gets stabbed to death next episode), arriving at Craster’s Keep, where Craster jealously keeps women as property and sacrifices his male children to the White Walkers. Craster’s is, unsurprisingly, depicted as the most miserable place imaginable, and Craster talks of serving the true gods, giving a sense of almost Lovecraftian horror to the White Walkers.

This leads to a transition whose substance is only clear in hindsight - to Theon, captured by (at this point) unknown forces, and seemingly being set free by a character we’ll eventually learn is Ramsay Snow, bastard son of Roose Bolton. It is only in light of these facts that the transition makes sense. The Boltons are an ancient house that trace their lineage back to the First Men, and are longstanding rivals of the Starks known for flaying their enemies alive. This sort of grotesque cruelty quietly reflects Craster’s actions, expanding our sense of the White Walkers to become a sort of fundamental rot setting into the North - an expanded definition of winter.

The next transition hinges entirely on this symbolic resonance, as it jumps to Stannis and Melisandre, the latter of whom is talking about going on a journey to find men with king’s blood who can be used as sacrifices to gain power for Stannis. This is an interesting transition - on one level it follows the theme established at Craster’s of sacrifice and barbarism. But it moves from the White Walkers threatening from the north to a barbarism that comes in from the east, and from a god of ice to a god of fire. Tacitly, then, the extremes of the two physical ends of the world are thematically linked in this regard.

This in turn allows for a transition to Danerys’s arc, since now we’re in the territory of Essos. That scene ends with an exchange regarding the oft-heard phrase “valar morghulis,” which means “all men must die,” with Daenerys noting to Missandei that “we are not men,” which sets up a transition back to Tyrion via the image of a prostitute.

The remaining two scenes are less well thematically linked: another Theon scene, and the resolution of the Jaime/Brienne plot. But this is, at least, sufficient to demonstrate how the show works. And it is worth pointing out specifically that this is linked closely to the show’s status as an adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels, which are downright pathological in their attentiveness to detail about the setting and the sense of structure. It is hardly being spoiler-heavy to point out that a story that has dragons on one side of the world and horrific ice monsters on another is headed to a fairly inevitable resolution. And it’s telling that one of the first questions Martin asked Weiss and Benioff when they pitched the television series was the identity of Jon Snow’s mother, a fact that’s not revealed in the books, but a structurally inevitable consequence of the fact that Daenerys is one of the story’s starting characters despite not initially seeming a part of the family whose sundering begins events.

But this understanding of Game of Thrones requires that we look at it as more than simply a narrative about characters. Like The Ribos Operation, the world of Game of Thrones moves according to recurring symbolic logic, with the same oppositions and themes playing out on large and small levels. (A favorite theme is moving between the games and backstabbing of the lords to the material misery inflicted upon the peasants, for instance.) Nobody is just a character with personality traits, nor, to be fair, just an empty piece of symbolism. Instead character and symbolism are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable from one another, and the story is built up out of the incredible density of resonance and implication that this constructs.

In other words, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who are, in 2013, engaged in the same basic sort of storytelling, only with Game of Thrones taking the approach of showing one setting in extravagant detail instead of showing a multitude of settings in brief sketches. But the basic approach and the buildup of dense symbolism is largely the same. The difference is that Game of Thrones offers a much higher level of reliability in this. Both it and Doctor Who produced the same number of episodes in 2013, and while one might fairly and accurately claim that Day of the Doctor was better than “The Rains of Castamere,” the truth is that Game of Thrones was the more steadfast show, turning up week after week with consistent dense quality while Doctor Who was busy fluctuating between Hide and Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.

So in many regards, the Hugos got it wrong twice: first in saying that Doctor Who deserved four nominations to Game of Thrones’s one, and then in saying that Game of Thrones had the better single episode. And yet on the whole, it got it right. In 2012 and 2013, Doctor Who wasn’t driving the conversation of what sci-fi/fantasy television could do. Game of Thrones had honed its toolset to something more inventive, more effective, and, most weeks, more interesting, making the “metafiction as default” approach of Moffat’s writing into a lean and efficient machine for spinning out an increasingly sweeping story without ever losing the heart of character drama that drives it.

Of course, looking at the long history of times we’ve done this dance, we can also phrase this in another way, which is that Game of Thrones put Doctor Who back in the position from which many of its most interesting moments emerge: a show with something to prove that has to respond to the larger culture around it. And while much of what makes Game of Thrones work is specific to its weird and heady mix of a hyper-detailed fantasy novel, its soap opera structure, and its Ribosian sense of scale, the challenge of elevating the formal and conceptual complexity that’s characterized Moffat’s work so far to a system of ruthlessly efficient quality is now very much open.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Waffling (November 22nd, 2014)

It's all been a bit V for Vendetta for me lately, though I'm actually through most of the stuff about the comic and tying up some loose ends. I think the shape of this chapter is interesting. One of the places where there really was a big creative decision to make was where to put the climax to Book One. What's the Number One Iconic Alan Moore work pre-Watchmen? Where do you put the emphasis and let him have his moment of victory before anyone else really comes into the story? And I picked Swamp Thing, which I think was sound. The other two candidates are, ultimately, hampered by resolving well after Watchmen. So this chapter is doing a lot of the de-escalating necessary. It feels kind of like a Game of Thrones finale - the episode that's after the big one. It's a nice pace and tone to be working in. Two more after it before we're done with Book One. Book Two terrifies me.

Except of course today was basically just wall to wall Smash Bros. Or will be. I've hardly been touching my video games, actually - so let's waffle on. Interesting stuff of the current generation? Or in the evergreen PC/mobile sphere? Just don't make it about ethics in video game journalism.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Duty Officer, Please: The Doctors Revisited (Jon Pertwee)

The Pertwee era, and I can vouch for this having written for it, presents a major challenge in providing a history of Doctor Who, simply because it doesn't fit with any of it. For 60% of it, the premise of the series is out of place. The Doctor is portrayed, inevitably, as a reaction against the previous Doctor, but the previous Doctor is the template for every single Doctor after Pertwee. It's got an awful lot of military action-hero stuff that's kind of weird for the program. It's an odd experiment that has really survived as a sort of limit case for what Doctor Who can be.

This is, ultimately, what The Doctors Revisited does. Pertwee is admitted up front as an oddity, and then studied and explained in half an hour. Moffat is on hand to explain why Jo Grant, Liz Shaw, the Brigadier, and the Master worked, and in three out of four cases it's "the actor playing the part." And an expanded field of celebrity guests are on hand to talk about the impact of it, reaffirming that this wasn't just an odd era of Doctor Who, it was a major part of the popular consciousness.

It's not particularly flashy - of the first three episodes, it's the one making the simplest case. Both Hartnell and Troughton were defined in terms of how they anticipated the present. Pertwee is simply explained as it was. But it's a persuasive case. Manning, Courtney, and Delgado really were fantastic actors. As was Pertwee, although he gets somewhat short shrift in his own special. The clips and sequences they pick are compelling early 70s television, or, perhaps more accurately, look reasonably like a modern sense of what compelling early 70s television would look like.

If there's an objection to be had - and I'm not entirely convinced there is - it's in the choice of stories to air after it, which is Spearhead From Space. But this objection is rather churlish. Unlike Tomb of the Cybermen, it's not really that you wish they'd picked a better story, or that they'd had a better story available to pick. Spearhead From Space is absolutely brilliant. And as Moffat enthusiastically points out in his introduction to it, it's gloriously weird in a very Doctor Who sort of way. It's a fantastic choice of Pertwee stories to show in 2013.

No, the problem is that you almost wish they'd picked a crappier one. The realization that the Pertwee era doesn't quite fit into any coherent narrative of Doctor Who's history has led to a genuinely unfortunate squeamishness about it. And so we get a very weird sort and not entirely accurate message out of this program. Yes, the Pertwee era had some real strengths, and yes, it was massively popular television, but the stuff that was popular doesn't much look like Spearhead From Space.

Am I saying they should have inflicted The Claws of Axos upon an unsuspecting population? Well, yes, because that's some of the most fun you can have with a Doctor Who DVD there, since The Claws of Axos is wall-to-wall "what the fuck" in a way that very few things that aren't The Web Planet are. But more realistically, I'm saying I wish they'd done Terror of the Autons, or Carnival of Monsters, if they were willing to admit that Pertwee went into space, which they don't actually ever do.

Instead we get the explanation of why the era doesn't fit, followed by a story that simultaneously encapsulates how it does fit while highlighting the essential differences. Which isn't untrue, but misses the opportunity to say "no, really, this was what was popular and beloved in 1973." The complete absence of Carnival of Monsters is actually worth stressing, since for years this was the BBC's preferred Pertwee story, and since it is in point of fact brilliant. It shows off so many of the best parts of what Doctor Who in the 1970s was. Yes, it's missing UNIT, but so is most of the Pertwee era, in truth.

It's understandable why the Pertwee era is a problem for writing histories of Doctor Who. But there's a squeamishness and an urge to apologize for it that's taken root as a result of that difficulty, and that's unfortunate. It's strange - it's one of my least favorite eras of Doctor Who, and this is unrelentingly praiseful of it, and yet I'm left with the inescapable sense that it was far too hard on the era all the same.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Comics Reviews (11/19/14)

You know the drill. Worst to best, but everything something I paid money for.

Annihilator #3

This isn't really working for me. It feels like the sort of default setting of Grant Morrison - like it's the statistical average of his other work. The sci-fi sections feel like Morrison doing self-parody, which, to be fair, they might well deliberately be, but with the real-world sections feeling a bit flat, this is just feeling like a mess to me.

Fables #146

Four to go, yes?

The Amazing Spider-Man #10

Here the basic operational problem of the Spider-Verse crossover becomes clear, which is that your storytelling gets really muddy when essentially every character is in the same costume. I also find my basic not-much-liking Superior Spider-Man to be a problem here, and the sequence that amounts to "here's where all the other books spin off from this" is painful. Hoping this finds its keel quickly, as I loved the start.

Guardians of the Galaxy #21

All the typical problems of the first issue of a Bendis arc, namely that the entire issue is spent slowly walking up to the stated premise of the arc. The last splash is brilliant, though.

New Avengers #26

Love the Doctor Doom stuff, but found Tony kind of fruitless here. His ranting arrogance at the end is nice, I suppose, if you get off on "Tony Stark is an arrogant, selfish bastard," but I don't. I like "Tony Stark is flawed but self-evidently one of the good guys," and find the entire amoral Tony thing to just not be my cup of tea. If you like it, you'll probably like this.

Loki: Agent of Axis #8

Much as I don't like Axis, I have to admit that inverting Loki is an absolutely genius premise, and Ewing does some lovely work in changing the underlying tone of the book. The mock heroic stuff is great, and Verity really jumps out as a character here. Good stuff, though I admit, knowing that this two-parter is going to be followed by a Kid Loki story makes me ever so slightly restless about it.

Avengers #38

I adore Cyclops here. I can't wait for X-Men to catch up to this status quo. I love who the Avengers are here - it's such a deliciously weird team. And it ends with an army of Shang-Chis. This is basically what comics exist for, no?

Daredevil #10

This Purple Man story was probably an issue too long on the whole, but the end here, and especially the comic equivalent to a post-credit scene is absolutely brilliant. In general, on this book, I'm a bit torn between feeling like Waid is kinda played out on Daredevil and the sad knowledge that whoever follows him is just going to Frank Miller all over the rug.

Uncanny X-Men #28

Bendis has a good premise here, and the good sense to keep the focus on it. The decision to properly have Cyclops get off the mat and start being awesome is a good one - you can see from here to Avengers #38 here, and it's a lovely line of sight. I really hoped, following Gillen's X-Men run, that someone would have the guts to do a Cyclops Is Right comic. Here it is, and I'm all for it.

Moon Knight #9

When I saw this in my pulls, I thought "man, why didn't I make that one of the titles I dropped?" So glad I didn't, because this really, really impressed me. The twist that unfurls here is just masterful - what looks like a very generic and predictable sort of comic in one absolutely brilliant idea becomes another one entirely. This is better than any of Ellis's issues. Absolutely brilliant, and it would be my pick of the week most weeks. Except...

The Multiversity: Pax Americana

Every once in a while, a highly anticipated comic steps up. We've known Pax Americana was coming for years. Morrison's response to Watchmen. A comic with an impossibly high bar to clear, and one that's only gotten higher as Moore and Morrison's sniping at each other became more and more active. And yet here we are, and it's... a reasonable comic. A skillful emulation of Watchmen's storytelling techniques, with enough sly jokes to keep it impish, enough clever ideas to keep it honest, and, perhaps most importantly, an honest enough assessment of what Watchmen had to say. Morrison pushes it to mild self parody without actually going so far as to suggest that Watchmen wasn't good. And then it suggests that all of this is, for better or for worse, a bit limited and, dare I say it, hermetic. Which has always been a fair critique of Watchmen.

On top of that, it's just very good. It's well-done. Quitely's art is superb, the eight/sixteen panel grid suiting him well. Morrison's writing is sharp. It's dense and chewy and a damn fine comic.

The 3-D Universe is a Hologrammatic Side-Effect (The Last War in Albion Part 71: Swamp Thing in Space)

This is the twenty-first of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the sixth volume. This volume is available in the US here and the UK here, as well as being obtainable at your local bookstore or comic shop. Finding the other volumes are left as an exercise for the reader.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionFollowing his story of Swamp Thing laying ecological siege to Gotham City, Alan Moore killed him. Again. 

"I love the way science SOUNDS. I love the ideas for their art. There’s a crazy beauty about a theory of dimensional structure that assembles itself into a snowflake, or the idea that reality is a two-dimensional plane of information and the 3-D universe is a hologrammatic side-effect. And that’s how I write science fiction. I use the sound of the ideas and then make it all up. And then it all comes true anyway." - Warren Ellis

Figure 535: The steady pan out from
Gotham towards the planet on which
Swamp Thing has landed. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by Rich Veitch, Alfredo
Alcala, and John Totleben, from Swamp
Thing
 #55, 1986)
This is confirmed in the next issue, which focuses primarily on Abby’s attendance of a memorial service for Swamp Thing, and in which she comes to terms with her loss. At the end of the service a man comes up to her introducing himself as Boston Brand and explaining that he’s “checked out all the places he might have ended up,” and saying that as far as he can tell, Swamp Thing isn’t in any afterlife. The issue ends four pages of page-tall narrow panels zooming out from Abby leaving a rose upon Swamp Thing’s memorial, out to the city streets, and then the planet, and finally across the cosmos. As the captions narrate Abby’s final acceptance of her lover’s death, in which she misunderstands the words Deadman said to her. “Maybe a wino’s delusion is the best thing I have to cling to right now,” she thinks. “Perhaps when we die, there’s another world somewhere. Perhaps there’s a heaven so big it has room for someone like you. I hope so. I hope you’re there now. Goodbye, my love. Goodbye.” At which point the steady pan out finally arrives, galaxies away, at a crater on an alien planet. With a “sklitch! pwack scluc kwilp thap pletch,” a figure emerges, stark blue and made of alien vegetation, but nevertheless, clearly the Swamp Thing. 

This marks the beginning of Moore’s final arc on Swamp Thing - a nine issue story about Swamp Thing’s return to Earth. By this point, as Moore puts it, “I’d done nearly all my original ideas on the book, all the ones that Steve and John had contributed to, all the ones I’d subsequently come up with - I’d pretty much done everything that I’d wanted with the character.” The final arc, then, was designed as “this big space storyline” where “I’d get all of my science-fiction Swamp Thing ideas out of my system.” Moore did not even write all nine issues, with both Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch (who Moore had by this point tipped as his successor on the book) chipping in fill-in stories. Bissette’s, in Swamp Thing #59, exists mainly to heap further indignities upon Abby at the hands of Anton Arcane, while Veitch’s slots in between Moore’s final space-based story and the issue in which Swamp Thing finally returns to Earth, giving Swamp Thing an adventure with Jack Kirby’s New Gods. 

Figure 536: John Constantine, unbidden, appears to Swamp
Thing to serve as the snake in his garden. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp
Thing
 #56, 1986)
Moore’s ideas for sci-fi based Swamp Thing stories broadly fit into two categories: experimental stories that extended the psychedelic approach that characterized much of Moore’s Swamp Thing work, and stories that let Moore play with DC properties he’d been a fan of in his youth. The first issue of the arc, in Swamp Thing #56, fits into the former category. Entitled “My Blue Heaven,” the story features Swamp Thing on a planet teeming with plants and insect life, but with no intelligent life whatsoever. In total isolation, Swamp Thing explores the world, contemplating the vast blue landscape and the different shades: “the color of African skin… of shadow on snow… of a jay’s throat… the color of saxophones at dusk… of orbiting police lights smeared across tenement windows… of a flame’s intestines… of the faint tracery of veins beneath the ghost flesh of her forearm’s underside… of loneliness… of melancholy.” He experiments with different types of bodies, growing a body with air sacs that can float across the landscape, and growing a second body with which he can play chess (although every game ends in stalemate). Eventually he grows a doppelgänger of Abby, and an entire duplicate of Houma over which he can serve as demiurge. But within his soulless vegetable city he finds a version of John Constantine (who appears “at the corner table” of the Houma diner “alone in the concealing shadows,” a description that echoes Moore’s first encounter with Constantine in a sandwich shop), who points out to him that he is merely talking to himself. Unable now not to see the artifice of his creation, Swamp Thing flies into a rage and dismantles his world and finally flees, without knowing if there is anywhere he can possibly land, concluding that death is preferable to this isolated hell.

In many ways this echoes Moore’s third issue of Swamp Thing, “Swamped,” in which Swamp Thing nearly loses himself in the green as he reels from the revelation that he is not in fact Alec Holland. As in “Swamped,” Swamp Thing encounters a wealth of phantasms and mirrors of his past life, nearly losing his identity in the face of them. But whereas in “Swamped” Swamp Thing is ultimately happy to surrender himself to the green, finding it a place where he can at last be at peace and be happy, in “Another Blue World” his memory of and love for Abby renders the equivalent solitude unbearable, a testament to the breadth of change the character has undergone in the thirty-five issues since “Swamped.” 

Figure 537: Swamp Thing and Adam Strange realize they
share a home planet. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Rick
Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp Thing #58, 1986)
Having completed his meditations, Swamp Thing proceeds to jump through a series of other alien worlds, which Moore uses to explore the possible intersections between Swamp Thing and science fiction as it exists in DC’s line of comics. First is a two-issue story featuring Adam Strange, a present day human created by Julius Schwartz and most associated with the 1950s/60s sci-fi anthology series Mystery in Space (from which Moore derives the title of the arc’s first issue), who occasionally traveled from Earth to the alien planet of Rann via the Rannian’s “Zeta Beam” and had space adventures in a Buck Rogers/John Carter tradition. Moore matches up Strange with another set of DC aliens, the Thanagarians, who discovered a substance called Nth metal that defies gravity, and used it to dress up in hawk costumes, which provided the Silver Age origin story for Hawkman. The story is a fairly standard bit of space opera that is pretty clearly little more than an excuse for Moore to play with yet another corner of DC’s history that he’d enjoyed as a child (Strange’s run in Mystery in Space ran from 1959-65, or from the ages of six to twelve for Moore, while Thanagar first appeared in 1961, and the Silver Age Hawkman got his own series in 1964). 

Figure 538: John Totleben's experimental
artwork for Swamp Thing #60. (Written
by Alan Moore, 1987)
After the Bissette-penned fill-in issue, Moore continued with an issue titled after a David Bowie song, “Loving the Alien,” that served as an opportunity for John Totleben to engage in a more experimental art style than he’d previously been able to, and let Moore stretch into one of the most avant garde plots he’d written. The issue is constructed entirely in splash pages, with no dialogue to speak of. Instead the story is narrated by a mysterious alien entity, part flesh, part machine, floating in space and seeking a mate. Only Totleben’s art, drawn as a series of psychedelic collages often featuring only the vaguest implication of Swamp Thing’s figure, makes it clear who the “ghost” that haunts the narrator’s insides is. Moore’s narration, meanwhile, is an extended exercise in writing from a profoundly alien perspective. “How shall I say it,” the narrator writes. “How to describe the effect this last bare fact worked in me? He was of my flesh. I was melted by the implications. Yes… yes, that is it! ‘Melted.’ Not for my body, that was not melted, save for the unchanging magma, boiling ceaselessly around my nuclear core. Not my body, but rather my mind; my psychostructure; my self. My self is what melted. All the precisely indexed data, sucked greedily from the computer systems of a thousand doomed alien vessels; all my art and science and neurosynthesis; the logarithms and sines; the very formula of what I am… melted,” in a strange and slightly disorienting account of what is, in effect, the alien creature falling in love with Swamp Thing when he attempts to incarnate out of the plant matter that is the alien. The story is in most regards an interesting experiment as opposed to an entirely successful one, but nevertheless demonstrates Moore continuing to be aggressively experimental and to push himself even as he was bringing his time on Swamp Thing to a close.

Figure 539: Swamp Thing accidentally incarnates as a
grotesque assemblage of other people's bodies. (From
Swamp Thing #61, 1987)
The final portion of the outer space arc comes in Swamp Thing #61, a story called “All Flesh is Grass.” On one level this story is another excuse for Moore to play with a personal favorite concept within DC. But on another, it is an attempt to invert the premise of Swamp Thing and find a new way to do horror stories with it. This is not insignificant. Depending on the particulars of one’s definition, it is possible to argue that the last time Moore actually wrote a horror story in Swamp Thing was “A Murder of Crows,” all the way back in Swamp Thing #48. Certainly it has not been the dominant mode for the title to work in for some time. But in “All Flesh is Grass,” Moore finds a genuinely new way to present a horror story. The premise of “All Flesh is Grass” is that Swamp Thing finally makes it to the planet suggested by Adam Strange at the end of that story, J586, where it might be possible to fix Swamp Thing’s ability to communicate with plants so that he can talk to the Earth again. Unfortunately, as he materializes on J586, he realizes too late that all of the plant life on the planet is in fact sentient, and that he has built his body and consciousness out of thousands of living people, all of whose consciousnesses collide with his own, pulling him under and driving him hopelessly mad. Veitch depicts the scene in a nightmarish double page spread in which Swamp Thing’s hands are visibly formed out of screaming and horrified alien faces, while Moore narrates the psychological distress of the people trapped within Swamp Thing’s body. “The horror swiped blindly, gestured inarticulately, nothing but amok. In each hand a polite and well-mannered family clenched into a fist of bitterness and recrimination. The horror ran, palms damp with angry tears, fingers quarrelling.” 

Rescuing J586 from Swamp Thing’s rampage is Medphyl, the sector’s representative to the Green Lantern Corps. The Green Lantern Corps extend out of the Silver Age revamp of the Green Lantern away from being based on iconography of orientalist adventure and towards an expansive concept in which Green Lantern is just one of a vast organization of what are in effect intergalactic police, each patrolling a sector of space emerging conically out of the planet Oa, at the center of the universe, where the Green Lantern Corps is headquartered. Moore had long been fond of the concept, and his Order of the Black Sun back in his aborted 4-D War storyline for Doctor Who Monthly was, by his own admission, him nicking the concept on the assumption that he would never actually get a chance to write a Green Lantern story of his own.

This was, obviously, an incorrect assumption. Indeed, “All Flesh is Grass” is not even the only opportunity Moore had to write Green Lantern stories. During his time at DC, he had the opportunity to write a trio of short stories featuring the characters. These stories in many ways resemble DC Universe versions of his Future Shocks for 2000 AD - all are short stories featuring twist endings. 

Figure 540: Mogo revealed. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Dave Gibbons, from Green Lantern #188, 1985)
The first, “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize,” pairs Moore with Dave Gibbons for a story about a Green Lantern named Mogo and why he doesn’t attend meetings of the Green Lantern Corps. It feature Bolphunga the Unrelenting, who is said to have “possessed the strength of a Denebian Dozerbull, the endurance of a Lalotian Lava-Limpet, and the intelligence of a bed of kelp.” Bolphunga decides that he will destroy the feared and powerful Green Lantern known as Mogo, landing upon the planet on which Mogo is known to arrive. Over the course of three pages Bolphunga searches for Mogo, but finds nothing save for a series of vast and carefully cut clearings. Eventually, mapping the planet, he realizes the awful truth: that the clearings form the insignia of the Green Lanterns, and that Mogo is not in fact a being upon the planet but is in fact a sentient planet, which in turn explains why Mogo never shows up at meetings: “his gravity field, you see. It would pull Oa apart.” 

Figure 541: Rot Lop Fan joins the F-Sharp Bell Corps.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Bill Willingham and Terry
Austin, from Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3,
1987)
A similar sense of wit pervades Moore’s third Green Lantern story, “In Blackest Night.” In this story, a Green Lantern named Katma Tui must explain to the Guardians how she was unable to find a Green Lantern to serve “in the black and lightless void known as the Obsidian Deeps.” The problem, Katma explains is that the being she found, Rot Lop Fan, was unable to understand the idea of a Green Lantern, since, residing in the Obsidian Deeps, he has no ability to comprehend the concepts of color or light. And so Katma Tui is forced to translate the concept, replacing the idea of a lantern with a bell, and the color green with the tone F-Sharp, which Rot Lop Fan finds particularly “soothing and restful.” And so instead of the Green Lanterns’ traditional oath, Rot Lop Fan proclaims that “In loudest din or hush profound / my ears catch evil’s slightest sound / let those who toll out evil’s knell / beware my power: The F-Sharp Bell!” And so, she explains to the Guardians, “I did appoint a worthy protector to the Obsidian Deeps… however I’m not sure if he qualifies as a member of the Green Lantern Corps, for in truth he’s never even heard of us!” 

But it is in most regards the second of his three Green Lantern stories that is most interesting. One of two collaborations he did with Kevin O’Neill while at DC, the story, entitled “Tygers,” tells of the death of Abin Sur, the predecessor to Hal Jordan as the Green Lantern for Earth’s sector of space. The story is notable for several reasons. For one, it is the story that Moore was referring to in later interviews where he accused DC of “going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of night.” [continued]